Regime change without war: Iraq, 16 February 2003


The majority in the Security Council believe that inspections are working, and like the millions on the streets see no need for war. However the case against the Iraqi regime has as much to do with human rights as weapons. Many Iraqis believe that nothing will change without outside intervention. In the present stalemate, a way forward that avoids war but keeps the pressure on Saddam Hussein would be to recognise this wider agenda as a direct concern of the UN.

Extend the successful inspections from weapons (for which Hans Blix sees no need for additional inspectors) to human rights and social conditions. Inspect Iraq’s political prisons: demand access to prisoners and interview them without warders present. Inspect Iraq’s hospitals and determine the truth about who denies access to life-saving medicines. Given the evidence of gross rights abuses, the Council should establish a special tribunal to investigate and try those responsible.

All this will take time: but it is surely a programme that addresses the legitimate concerns of Tony Blair. The UN should neither bomb Iraq nor run away from its crisis. The peace movement should demand that it intervenes to secure regime change without war.

fear and solidarity: the future of the anti-war movement 12 February 2003
The prospect of war has stimulated a mass movement of the kind that was lacking in the build-up to Afghanistan (2001), Kosovo (1999) or the Gulf (1991). What has changed to make this take off? Two differences are striking. First, all the others were responses to attacks (by al-Qaida, Serbia, Iraq): this is a pre-emptive war. Western leaders are mostly risk-avoiders: George W. Bush appears as a risk-taker, a rogue president, and many people are unnerved by the military, political and economic instability that he seems ready to provoke to achieve his goals. Hence the remarkable finding in a British poll that more people see Bush than Saddam as a threat to peace. Second, this time the physical risks seem local as well as global: in Britain especially, the government’s support for Bush seems likely to attract a 9/11 style terrorist attack. This connection, which Tony Blair hopes to play for the war, actual turns people against.

So as with the great nuclear disarmament movements of the 1980s, it is fear that gives the peace case a resonance with a mass public. Of course it is not the motivation of many activists, who are more likely to be opposed to US world power in principle. But it is a healthy concern that politicians would do well to listen to, and in conjunction with Franco-German-Russian reservations, it may be enough to force Bush back (as Blair wants) for a second resolution at the UN. But at that point, there will almost certainly be war, regardless – and with UN authority unless Jacques Chirac shows a surprising depth of resistance.

Where will the peace movement go then? Of course it all depends on the course of events: a long, unsuccessful US campaign with many civilian and even Western military casualties could give the movement a more decisive role as happened (but only after several years) over Vietnam. The more probable outcome of a shorter, more successful US war with UN backing will leave the peace movement shouting ‘Stop the War’ – only to find that Bush does precisely that. Unless a major terrorist attack occurs – which will probably turn popular opinion to anger and revenge and all but kill off peace activism – fear will evaporate and the movement will lose its goal. Bush’s gamble could have paid off in an even stronger US hegemony in world politics. Although Bush’s ‘war on terrorism’ is open-ended, even he may feel he has had enough war for one electoral term; the North Korea crisis may be resolved peaceably. (Whether Blair’s position will survive the ignominy he currently attracts is less certain.)

Once war starts, the real issues will be no longer how to prevent it, but how to respond to its noxious effects. Although another 9/11 cannot be ruled out, the worst effects will almost certainly be on people in Iraq and its region. People will be killed and many more displaced by US bombing. Many may lose their means of subsistence and become vulnerable to famine and disease. Rebel communities may be attacked, and more still displaced, by Saddam Hussein’s armies. We should remember the lessons of 1991, and also of the attacks that Milosevic unleashed on the Albanians when NATO bombed Serbia. Saddam may even use his elusive weapons of mass destruction on the West, on internal opposition, or on Israel.

The politics of fear need to be replaced by the politics of solidarity. Anti-Americanism will be of little help here (the objections I raised to its predominance in the earlier anti-war movement are still relevant). Once the US is established in Iraq, getting it out will not be the first priority. On the contrary, we will need to demand of the US and its nervous UK ally that they live up to their promises of a better Iraq. This means extensive programmes to care for and protect the victims of the war. It also means rapidly restoring the shattered Iraqi economy, immediately beginning a democratic transition, and establishing proper means to bring Iraq’s present rulers to justice. Peace entails justice, indeed, not merely in this sense of criminal responsibility, but in the larger sense of a just political and economic settlement for the people(s) of Iraq.

Does the present peace movement have answers to these kinds of questions? Pretty obviously not: its very strength reflects the fact that it is a very broad, and hence unstable, coalition united only by opposition to Bush and Blair. Very probably it will fragment and lose its present influence. But we can learn from this experience, and some at least of this huge coalition could become a force for lasting good in the affairs of Iraq and the world.

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